08 July 2011

Entering a New Lab

So as with entering a new lab it helps to know what the different research topics are in the lab and the general idea of the lab.  Then comes familiarizing oneself with the technical jargon for the research, meeting new team members, and catching up to speed with the work in the lab.  And of course, it helps to do a bit of research on one's own to help jump start understanding.

The lab I joined for the summer 2011 was Xue Han's lab.  She works in Biomedical Engineering (BME) as well as neuroscience.  The current idea that leads this lab involves treating brain disorders.  Such disorders are prevalent in society today, however in terms of medical treatment society is still lacking in the ability to treat these problems effectively.  Numerous disorders are untreatable and those that are have side effects on the patients.  Using optogenetics, the lab is searching for causal links between the neurons in the brain and physical behavior (like movement, decision making, attention, and memory).  To do this the lab is studying mice and their behaviors.  Ed Boyden has published several papers with Xue Han and in the video below discusses how optogenetics might help in this situation.

What we are doing specifically is to help create the training apparatus for the mice that is more complicated than what the mice are currently training with.  The main premise is that there is a port where the mouse pokes its nose in to activate a trial and then some lights will light up on the opposite side of the box where the mouse must activate the correct light for a reward.  Currently there is one activation port and one reward port and the goal is to add more ports than the one reward port so that the mouse has more choices to find the reward when activating the trial.  After training the mice then trials will be run and the mice studies for causality between the neurons in the brain and the behavior of the mouse.

The next step is to familiarize oneself more with the terminology and equipment in the lab.  This means for us that we had to review some Labview (a graphical computing program) which is currently being used to run the equipment.  It is through Labview that the lights work as well as the reward for the mouse's actions.  We also had to do a bit of research on this topic in science to create a better understanding of what we were doing (such as the video above).  This part of becoming accustomed to the lab definitely takes time and can be frustrating when other lab members already have this knowledge and one does not.  This part always takes time, a bit of patience, and a healthy curiosity for asking questions to create better understanding.

There are also challenges when entering a new lab.  Some of the more basic ones are learning people's names and discovering who to go to for questions; it is a team effort in labs.  One also needs to learn the layout of the lab, where the equipment is kept, where offices are, how to get materials, and how the experiments run.  It is definitely helpful to get a tour, such as we did, and to ask to observe some of the experiments and then ask questions as a trial runs.  Everyone in the lab is open and excited for the research as well as willing to answer questions.  Working as a team helps to keep these challenges down and encourages collaboration to solve problems that arise in the lab as well as creating new ideas to spring from in future experiments.

As for creating the apparatus, a good first step is to consider what the goals are for the device and then if there are any limitations.  For the device that we are building we are looking for a larger and slightly more complicated version of a set up that already exists so the basic layout is already known.  What we had to do was decide the dimensions for the set up which involves several measurements.  Therefore we first measured some of the parts already available in the lab and then chose the upper limit of width per side.  This limit is based off of a secondary set up that will also be used in the lab.  Then we needed to calculate how wide the panels for each port would be.  We took the entire decided width keeping in mind how much space is taken up by the panel joints and divided by the sides we wanted to have in the final set up.  Finally, before deciding if these measurements would work in terms of dimensions we created a model of the ports side of the apparatus.  To do this we cut out the dimensions on extra cardboard in the lab and then put them in order with the panel joints.  With the model we were then able to decide on the dimensions needed.

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